Kevin Strait had everything set up. He had a truck all ready to come for the famous Cadillac. He had the paperwork with him. And it looked as though he had a deal with rock-and-roll legend Chuck Berry to donate his fabled car to the Smithsonian.
But when Berry, wearing his signature yachting cap, pulled up in his golf cart that day and entered the room where the scholar was waiting, the first thing the musician said was: “I’m not giving you anything.”
Strait, 41, a project historian, musician and jazz expert with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, kept his cool. He hung around and spent the rest of the time schmoozing with one of rock’s founding fathers.
And by the end of the day, at Berry’s spread, west of St. Louis, Strait helped push the red 1973 Eldorado convertible onto the truck that carried it toward its destination in Washington.
Today it sits, refurbished and reborn in the music exhibit — a symbol of Berry’s musical legacy and his role as the African American poet of teenage exuberance and jukebox subversion of the 1950s and ’60s.
Strait said the automobile is “a lyrical fixture in his works”: the Coupe de Ville and V-8 Ford of “Maybellene,” the souped-up jitneys of “You Can’t Catch Me” and “You Never Can Tell.”
“Chuck Berry had always been in our sights,” Strait said. “He’s the primary architect of rock-and-roll music.”
And when Strait learned that among Berry’s possessions was the Caddy in which he rode onstage in the 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” he knew the museum should try for it.
Strait flew out to formalize the deal on Nov. 9, 2011. But when he met Berry, now 89, in his office, the star shook Strait’s hand and delivered the bad news.
Strait said they began to talk. About music, history, the museum. Strait told Berry the museum wanted to place him in the cultural context of African American musical greats like Duke Ellington.
Berry eventually threw in one of his favorite guitars, nicknamed Maybellene, as part of the donation, Strait said.
Item: Chuck Berry’s red ’73 Eldorado
Donor: Chuck Berry
Museum exhibition: Musical Crossroads
More backstories from some of the most significant pieces inside the new African American Museum